How Will 3D Printing Change Supply Chain Management?

Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research

Professor Chee Wong is professor of Supply Chain and Management and director of the Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research (COSCR). His research interests lie in the areas of supply chain integration, sustainable supply chain, third-party logistics, global/ethical sourcing, and operations strategy. Professor Wong discusses here how 3D printing can change supply chain management.

Chee Yew Wong

Although there has been a lot of hype in the news about 3D printing in the last few years, the process has actually been around for 30 years or so.

3D printing was initially used by manufacturers to create prototypes as a way of visualising what a product would look like. The process works by building up numerous layers of material (such as plastics or clay) from a digital design.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, advancement in technology has allowed industries to branch out from using 3D printers to just create prototypes. The development has meant that it has become possible to print products that are structurally strong enough and of a good enough texture to be used beyond just a prototype, using metals, plastics, ceramics, porcelains and carbon fiber.

3D technology can now produce a variety of products commercially, from aerospace and automotive components to medical devices, textiles, costumes, toys, jewellery, household products, home accessories, sculptures and even food.

The increase in the range and number of applications due to 3D printing has led supply chain professionals to start to ask the question “how will 3D printing change supply chain management?”

3D printing is being used to innovate in many industries. Given the rise of 3D design and printing enterprises it is now possible to order a uniquely designed consumer product online and have it printed and delivered, just like buying anything from eBay or Amazon.

In addition, consumers today can design the product themselves using online design software and even purchase a 3D printing machine to print the product at home.

3D printing allows automotive, aerospace, construction and DIY industries to print spare parts instead of having to produce and store large quantity of components in a long multi-tier distribution supply chain, waiting for customer orders. This means a lot of the component manufacturing, final assembly and logistics activities can be eliminated. The new supply chains simply deliver raw materials in the form of wire, powder, liquid or resin to 3D printing enterprises or consumers.  

Another emerging business model that will have significant implications to retail supply chains is the sale of 3D model files. Anyone can design a product and then sell it online which could lead to a new consumer to consumer and consumer to business marketplace.

Consumers could buy the design and have it printed by a local 3D printing enterprises. Amazon has even filed a patent application for a 3D mobile business model that allows delivery trucks to print products as they carry out deliveries. It will soon be possible to design a product or purchase a design and have it delivered the same day! The long idea-to-market lead time most supply chains suffer from will become history. Companies that rely on the old-fashion lengthy idea-to-market supply chain can potentially be disrupted overnight.

Reacting to this emerging opportunity, some retailers have started to offer 3D printing at their stores. For example, the Orchard Supply Hardware stores in California (using technology by Lowe’s Innovation Labs) has allowed customers to scan certain items, such as out-of-production antique home accessories, to create 3D models for printing. 

Even logistics companies such as UPS are offering 3D printing services. Soon we will see many 3D printing services appearing in different types of retail stores as well as dedicated 3D printing enterprises in major cities.

3D printing can also bring a lot of societal benefits:

  • It is now possible for doctors to scan and produce 3D printed implants in a hospital the same day the implant’s required
  • 3D printing has allowed the revival of manufacturing in large cities. It can potentially create new jobs in cities and encourage reshoring (the practice of transferring a business operation that was moved overseas back to the original country). See Dr Gary Graham’s blog post on how 3D weaving can lead to future city production, economic regeneration and democratisation.
  • 3D printing can save a lot of costs by reducing long chains of inventory especially for spare-part supply chains. By using 3D printing aerospace, automotive and potentially many other similar industries no longer need to keep lots of spare parts along the supply chains. With the advent of predictive maintenance (testing and monitoring machines in order to predict machine failures) customers or end users simply print required spare parts by paying a small fees for obtaining the 3D model files.

3D printing as an emerging technology is going through a cycle of hype and will eventually become mainstream in many supply chains. There are still some challenges before 3D technology will become more widely used however. For example, you can currently only print one product at a time; the raw materials have to be heated at a very high temperature; and the printers are still very expensive for consumers to purchase.

There are also a lot of copyright issues. Questions need to be answered, such as: 

  • Do customers have the right to scan and print a component or product they purchased?
  • What if the customer scanned a product and shared the 3D models with others?
  • Who owns the design when a customer creates their own design and has it printed by 3D enterprises? 
  • What if the 3D printing enterprise takes and sells the design?     

At the moment there is a lack of legal clarity around these issues. Following the experience of copyright problems within the online music industry, lots of law suits are expected to take place.

Professor Chee Wong delivered a workshop on this topic at the Integrated Supply Chain Conference in Brussels and Istanbul earlier this year. 

The Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research (COSCR) is working on several research projects related to 3D printing and supply chains. If you are interested in working together or finding out more information on these project, please contact Professor Chee Wong

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.